Ontario growers fail to snap up untreated seed

Free of neonicotinoids | Demand from corn growers was lower than expected but some soybean producers placed orders

Early indications and sales figures suggest that Ontario growers will plant a minimal amount of insecticide-free corn seed this spring.


Grain Farmers of Ontario and other organizations asked seed companies last year to provide more corn seed free of neonicotinoids, a class of in-secticides blamed for bee deaths in the province.


Chair Henry Van Ankum said the companies have fulfilled their promise, but grower response has been measured.


“I think the majority of retailers re-sponded quite well and farmers did have some choice,” said Van Ankum. “My understanding is there was a little more interest in ordering un-treated seed, but there wasn’t huge (demand).”


Van Ankum and others sent a letter to the Canadian Seed Trade Association last summer, requesting more options for growers when it comes to neonicotinoid seed treatments on corn.


Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency said last September that the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed was not sustainable because insecticide-laden dust from planting equipment was killing bees.


Stephen Denys, past-president of the Canadian Seed Trade Association and vice-president of sales and marketing for Pride Seeds, said the industry responded to demands for increased availability of untreated seed, but growers didn’t order vast quantities of neonic-free seed.


“The uptake on corn has been minimal,” he said. 


“I think the grower awareness was certainly there that they could order. I think what it speaks to is (that) growers are seeing the benefit.”


Denys said Pride Seeds offered untreated seed on its premium corn hybrids, which gave growers an option on preferred varieties.


Casey Dillon, Hyland Seeds’ central regional sales manager for Ontario and Michigan, said growers ex-pressed interest in untreated seed but orders were nominal.


“All the dealers and customers are aware of the situation that we’ve made untreated available,” he said.


“The demand for it has not been overwhelming, by any means. There are some (orders), but it’s still a very small percentage of the whole total sales.”


Dan Davidson, president of the Ontario Beekeepers Association and a corn grower from Watford, Ont., said producers in his part of the province are interested in untreated corn seed 


“A friend of mine sells seed, and he’s had pretty good uptake on farmers ordering the untreated seed.”


Davidson, who has lobbied for a ban on neonicotinoids in Ontario, booked untreated seed for his farm last fall but hasn’t received his order yet.


He had to pay full price for his seed, even though it came without a neonic seed treatment.


“I’m sure the uptake would be better if there was a cost associated with that insecticide. It would make farmers think a little bit more about making that decision.”


Denys said some companies did charge the same price for untreated and treated seed, but others offered a deduction.


“We had a price discount,” he said. 


“But to be honest with you, if we do the math, in terms of the volume involved with untreated, it probably cost us money.”


Bookings of untreated corn seed may have been lower than expected, but Denys said producers did order soybeans without neonics.


“I’d say there’s a bit more uptake on the soybeans side, depending on the area.”


Still, soybean producers in certain regions, such as eastern Ontario, likely ordered more seed with a neonicotinoid seed treatment because aphid pressure was intense last year. 


“In those pockets, if you had the seed treatment on, a lot of producers didn’t have to spray,” Denys said. 


“Those that didn’t have an insecticide seed treatment did have to spray.”


Some growers and crop insect specialists remain skeptical about the yield benefits associated with insecticidal seed treatments, which has prompted Ontario’s agriculture ministry to conduct strip trials this summer.


“This year I would say is a year of trial,” Davidson said.


“Farmers haven’t had a chance to do trials to see what the actual yield gain is on their own land.”


Van Ankum said seed treatments work, but they’re not highly effective every year in every location.


“We know there are situations where the neonic seed treatment does pay huge dividends, as far as protecting the seedling,” he said. 


“We also know there are probably some field situations where it’s not as important.”